What is the Cherokee Indian Nation?

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  • Written By: Jason C. Chavis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2019
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The Cherokee Indian Nation is one of the largest Native American tribes in the United States. It is based out of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and composed of the Cherokee people who were forced to relocate to Indian Territory in the 19th century; African-American slaves once belonging to the tribe; and the Natchez people, a tribe from the Southeast which was placed in the same area. Today, it operates a democratic government with autonomous authority over the Cherokee Indian Nation.

Cherokees that were forced to relocate to the area had to march from their homelands to Indian Territory via the Trail of Tears. An estimated 4,000 people died along the way. Today, nearly 300,000 people live within the Cherokee Indian Nation.

One of the most important facts about the Cherokee Indian Nation is its determination of who is eligible for citizenship. The Dawes Rolls from 1893 determine who was a Native American at the time and are the central point of reference for people who can qualify for membership. The only exception was a decision in 2006 that allowed certain African-Americans with traditional connections to the tribe to be considered citizens despite evidence of blood relations.


The government of the Cherokee Indian Nation is based on the same principles as the United States Constitution. It has a three branch system with executive, legislative and judicial bodies of power. The executive is controlled by a Principal Chief and his or her deputy, the legislative branch is managed by 16 members of the Tribal Council, and a District Court and Judicial Appeals Tribunal comprise the judicial branch. All representatives are elected for four-year terms by those over the age of 18. Judges are appointed by the Principal Chief and approved by the Tribal Council.

In modern times, the Cherokee Indian Nation has faced a number of political crises between the executive and judicial branches. Most notably, in 1997 the Principal Chief Joe Byrd helped to destabilize the Cherokee Constitution by seizing control of the courthouse with his private army. Federal authorities could not intervene due to tribal sovereignty. Eventually, he agreed to return power to the courts. Byrd was later removed from office.


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